The Spartans dropped a 71-61 decision to No. 14 Duke in Indianapolis on Nov. 18, and on Sunday, suffered a 61-56 loss to No. 11 Kansas in Orlando. The Spartans beat No. 20 Marquette, 79-68 on Thanksgiving Friday marking the best win of the season by either of tonight's combatants.
Michigan State has played one true road game, winning close in Annapolis vs. Navy, 64-59.
The unranked Irish are staked as two-point favorites tonight over the 19th-ranked Spartans in South Bend.
1.) Ripe for the Picking? Wednesday night will be the Spartans' sixth game in a 13-day span and both injury and illness have impacted their early-season preparations. It's a situation in which the confident Irish should be able to take advantage in South Bend.
If Notre Dame is to return to the NCAA Tournament, protecting its home court is paramount. That means an approximate 8-1 conference mark and a win tonight, the program's only opportunity to impress the NCAA Selection Committee after a 1-1 split in the Hall of Fame Tip-off Classic. (A 2-0 finish against the Minutemen and Friars would have likely put the Irish on the precipice of the Top 25 heading into tonight.)
Conversely, a loss places the Irish firmly in no-man's land on a national scale. It would be an uphill battle for respect as a grueling ACC slate unfolds.
Notre Dame is getting Michigan State at the right time -- ailing in early December. A win over the Spartans would likely look great in March.
2.) "Big on Big": Brey has espoused since late-summer that he has two of the ACC's 10-12 best players in Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton. While Connaughton is the glue (previewed below), Grant is the difference-maker -- the player capable of creating offense vs. anyone the Irish will face.
Tonight he'll tussle with fellow veteran guards, a collection of which came under fire from their head coach for taking part defensively in what Izzo perceived as a layup drill in a win over Marquette, "We sure ain't blue collar, so we're going to see if can get back to blue collar," said Izzo.
Expect Grant to hit the ground at times tonight -- and for him to respond. Grant often looks to involve his teammates first, but a few heat-check three-point shots from the playmaker are likely on tap, and necessary, against a Spartans defense that will close out against Notre Dame's growing list of three-point shooters.
3.) Role Player, Extraordinaire: Aside from taking the ball to the bucket vs. quality foes, the aforementioned Connaughton does most things well entering the meat of his senior season. He hits the open shot, crashes both boards, offers quality help-side defense, moves the ball in a crisp half-court offense, hits free throws, and plays quality position defense.
And he does so for 38-40 minutes when necessary. It'll likely be necessary tonight against Spartans junior guard Denzel Valentine and senior swingman Brandon Dawson, though the latter battled the flu last weekend. Connaughton and Grant will be tasked with the tandem defensively, with Connaughton also aiding the efforts of Irish bigs underneath.
Notre Dame can't beat a quality opponent without a solid all-around effort from Connaughton. Three-point contributions from the do-everything senior historically make the Irish a tough out, but its the across the board, stat-sheet-stuffing outings from the future Major Leaguer that almost always equate to an Irish victory in South Bend.
4.) No Reticence Running the Show: Spartans senior point guard Travis Trice won't be fazed by the Purcell Pavilion's first impact crowd of the season -- but Irish sophomore triggerman Demetrius Jackson could be.
Jackson's early-season efforts have mirrored what Brey envisioned for his floor-leader, but a veteran foe such as Trice provides Jackson's toughest test to date. While his burden to run the show is lessened by the presence of Grant, one of the nation's best passing off guards, Jackson can't pull back in such situations. He's best in attack mode, with or without the ball.
Grant will often run the show from the point in crucial possessions, but Jackson has to make himself available, constantly moving or finding a spot-up corner three-point opportunity off the ball.
5.) All Hands (Still?) on Deck: 6'8" swingman V.J. Beachem has cemented his role as Notre Dame's sixth-man. Instant offense off the bench. Freshmen backup center Martin Geben is the essential part of the bench's equation -- it's clear starter Zach Auguste can't carry the load by himself.
Thereafter, intermittent contributions from Austin Burgett and freshman Bonzie Colson have dotted Notre Dame's first seven games to date. Colson is an intriguing option entering tonight's contest as a like-bodied banger that could aid the Irish bigs on the boards for the better part of 10 minutes.
Will Notre Dame continue to go nine-deep at home? (Expect and eight-man rotation as the conference road season gets underway.)
Each of the nine can aid the Irish in a unique manner -- it's incumbent upon Brey to harness that natural energy off the bench as the Irish embark on crucial home contest No. 1 of 10 this winter.